Mandy Carter

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–From Alabama to Washington state, Minnesota to Florida, religious conservative activists in some two dozen states are working to build support for anti-gay marriage initiatives. Many of these may wind up on ballots in next year’s mid-term elections.

The push is helped by political momentum built in 2004, when similar ballot initiatives in 11 states helped Republicans stir up their base and divide other constituencies to help reelect President George W. Bush and retain control of both houses of Congress.

Experts were reluctant to predict how many of the new attempts would succeed over the course of the two-year election cycle. But if all the efforts were to succeed, they could make the crop of anti-gay-marriage initiatives in this election cycle twice that of November 2004.

They could also continue to drive a wedge between voters and progressive candidates.

“When the people go to the polls, there’s an overwhelming percent that favor traditional marriage,” said Mathew Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal organization in Orlando, Fla. “That puts them at a conflict when the candidate doesn’t line up with the ballot initiative.”

All 17 states that have so far considered anti-gay marriage amendments have favored them by solid majorities.

Success Formula

“If you find something that seems to work, you want to try and replicate it as much as you can,” said Mandy Carter, a prominent lesbian activist from North Carolina.

But she added that ballot initiatives prohibiting same-sex marriage aren’t necessarily a winning weapon for Republicans. The marriage protection measures, she said, turn out progressives as well as conservatives. Moreover, the presidential election was decided on the issues of the war and the economy rather than on “moral values,” she said.

“There was a lot of hype and spin about” the effect of the initiatives on the 2004 elections, agreed Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, an organization in New York that promotes marriage equality. “But when you do the number crunching, it’s pretty clear these measures did not really alter the vote in a significant way in the ballot-measure states or nationally.”

An analysis conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force bolsters that assertion.

Former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts carried Oregon by a wider margin than Vice President Gore did in 2000, despite a successful anti-gay initiative on the 2004 ballot, the group notes. Kerry also won a higher percentage of the vote in Ohio and did as well as Gore did in Michigan, two other battleground states with anti-gay ballot initiatives.

Still, Eric Stern, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, a gay and lesbian organization in Washington, D.C., conceded that the ballot measures did help Republicans turn out their base, especially those religious conservatives who stayed home in 2000 because they were not convinced of Bush’s support.

Advocates Say 2006 Will Be Different

But gay rights advocates contend that the current anti-gay campaign will be less successful in 2006 than in November 2004, when every one of the 11 marriage measures on state ballots passed.

“This is a window that anti-gay organizations saw for amending state constitutions and that window may not open so wide” in 2006, said Camilla Taylor, a staff attorney at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, based in New York.

The public is becoming increasingly comfortable with same-sex marriage as gay and lesbian couples wed in Canada and the United States, she said. At the same time, she said, courts are upholding same-sex marriage and domestic-partner-benefit laws, and gay and civil rights groups are mounting public-education campaigns.

“I think we’re seeing great strides,” Taylor said.

Gay Rights Advocates Reach Out

At the same time, gay rights advocates are also reaching out more aggressively to constituencies outside of their core supporters in liberal and gay and civil rights communities. Advocates are marketing their message to single women, unmarried heterosexual couples, labor unions and pro-choice advocates who they say are also hurt by language that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Politically, gay rights advocates note that the recently enacted amendments have emboldened social and religious conservatives in elected office.

These officials, they say, are managing to undermine a broad range of progressive causes, including reproductive health measures and women’s rights.

Since the amendments have become law, for example, Republicans in Congress and in the White House have taken further steps to cut funding for programs that aid low-income groups and weaken laws ensuring gender equality in sports and education.

Legal Implications

Gay rights activists also point out the legal implications of the new amendments for women, unmarried heterosexual couples and employees.

Because many of the amendments forbid the legal recognition of other types of relationships–such as civil unions and domestic partnerships–they are beginning to be used in court cases to challenge laws relating to domestic violence, domestic partner employee benefits and parental rights.

In Ohio, for example, some judges have found that victims of domestic violence cannot file charges against unmarried abusers because of the state’s new definition of marriage. Other state judges, however, have disagreed with that opinion.

Taylor predicted that judges will ultimately find that the amendment does not undermine existing domestic violence laws. Nonetheless, she expects opponents of gay rights to continue to try to use the marriage amendments to “try to attack families involving gay and lesbian couples or different-sex couples that are not married.”

In Michigan, State Attorney General Mike Cox recently issued an opinion that, under his state’s new amendment, state entities are no longer permitted to provide domestic partnership benefits to employees.

Stern, of the National Stonewall Democrats, said the opinion has angered workers because it interferes with the right of labor unions to use those types of benefits to collectively bargain and negotiate contracts.

In an Ohio case, a parent has cited the amendment in an argument that a child-custody agreement between two unmarried people is no longer valid, Taylor said.

Marriage-equality advocates contend that this is just the beginning of what will be a broader political and legal attack on all of those who do not fit into the ideal nuclear family–headed by a married heterosexual couple–envisioned by religious conservatives.

“This is a one-size-fits-all model that the right wing is pushing,” Wolfson said. “And gay people are not the only ones in their crosshairs.”

For more information:

Freedom to Marry:

Liberty Counsel: